David Hillyard: His Story of U.S. Ska Part 3

A little intro. David Hillyard is well known to general readers of this blog. He’s a very long standing OG member of The Slackers, founded his own Rocksteady 7, played on the now classic Hepcat album Out of Nowhere and even before that he was playing in San Diego as a founding member of the Donkey Show. It’s an understatement to say he’s had a long music career let alone one devoted to the likes of Ska. He of course has a distinct and passionate perspective on music in general and pointed thoughts on the state of Ska in the U.S. having toured here for over 20 years.

So it was a couple of years ago he decided to write down those thoughts and publish them to his Myspace blog for the world to read. As that social network has fallen out of favor and the feeling that his discussion should be read by more people than might see it now I reached out to him with a question. Would he be interested in havcing those comments being republished on our blog? Did he want to change or update anything? Nope – still holds true.

EDITORS NOTE: Nothing was changed except a little clean up on punctuation and such.

READ: PART I | PART 2

His Story of U.S. Ska By David Hillyard Part 3
Originally Published on February 20, 2008 by David Hillyard (of The Slackers & Rocksteady 7) on his Myspace Blog – Republished here with permission.

I want to talk some more about the late 80s. As I re-read my ramblings my thoughts became a little clearer. Or maybe my ramblings are so convoluted they need clarification….regardless…

The late 80’s were a time of “rebirth” after the last of the 2 Tone ska wave fell apart by around 1984/1985. In the mid 80’s, Madness put out Mad Not Mad which to my ears was just horrible. Bad Manners put out Mental Notes which featured such dreck as “Mountain of Love.”

By the late 80s, in the UK, there were a bunch of younger bands like the Hot Knives and the Loafers that came up around the Link, Gaz, and Unicorn labels. They were continuing 2 Tone traditions. Then there was the Potato 5 which reached back to the Skatalites and the Trojans which did “Gaelic Ska.” Yeah, you still hear some of that stuff around. Especially as played by German DJs.

In addition to the UK, they were a bunch of continental bands like Mr. Review, the Busters, and Skaos.

Potato 5

In 1989, Donkey Show put out a track on the Skanking Around the World compilation and put out its Bali Island EP in 1989 on the Unicorn Label (worst album art ever!). Unicorn fell apart when its owner fled the UK on the heels of charges of child molestation. Yup. A classy operation. Heard he fled to Turkey.

In the late 80’s, you had strong scenes in the US on the west coast and the east coast and then scattered pockets in the midwest and Canada. On the east you had the Boilers, the Toasters, Bim Skala Bim, Urban Blight, Second Step, Public Service, New York Citizens, and new bands were just getting started like the Scofflaws, Bosstones, and Skinnerbox.

The Donkey Show

On the West Coast you had Donkey Show, No Doubt, Skeletones, Lets Go Bowling, the Liquidators, some bands hanging around from the early 80s likes Fishbone, the Uptones, and the Untouchables, plus a bunch of new bands just getting started like Skanking Pickle and and I guess Operation Ivy (whom I actually never heard about until I moved to NYC in 1992.) Then you had bands scattered all over the US and Canada, often in improbable places like Swim Herschel Swim in Utah.

I remember the talk about how Ska was coming back and it was gonna get big. I might have believed that Donkey Show was gonna be the one to lead the way. I’m sure that other bands had similar delusions.

The scenes which had started out being completely isolated were being tied closer together. The Toasters came out the west coast in 1988 for the first time. Bim Skala Bim came our way too around the same time. Donkey Show did 2 tours out to the East Coast in 1988 and 1989. Music was starting to get round from the UK, East Coast, West Coast.

For most of the USA the music was completely fresh. It really opened my eyes when Donkey Show played in such places as Omaha, Youngstown, St. Louis, and Houston. We weren’t playing for Ska audiences. We were playing for people, 90% of whom, had no idea what were doing. BUT THEY LIKED IT!

I saw the potential of this music. That it could work anywhere.

But Ska didn’t take off in the late 80’s. Its not that the shows didn’t do well. As I mentioned in my last writing, the shows in the late 80’s in LA were bigger than most ska shows until the mid 90’s.

Like I mentioned there was the Funk Virus. Band members were restless working in the Ska idiom and wanted to “evolve” or “move on.”

The Donkey Show Live

There also probably wasn’t the critical mass of Ska fans yet. Outside of a handful of major cities, you wouldn’t know the music existed. More Americans still needed to get used to the music. They needed to get their eyes and ears around it.

I think it’s also natural that most bands break up. You don’t make a huge amount of money doing a band so without hope of “being the next big thing” or a serious financial infrastructure, people do other things with their lives. Your mom is always hoping for that graduate school degree y’know?

So what were the important legacies of 80’s ska in the USA? For me, it laid the foundation musically for what was to come later, mostly through Fishbone.

It also set up the infrastructure. Mini-festivals and events with “Ska” in the title like “modskarade” and “Skalloween.” Oh joy.

Plus a lot of indie (later called D.I.Y) record labels. A lot of the early bands put out their own records and there were small labels that put out stuff from the 80s Ska bands, but Bucket aka the Toasters not only put out his own stuff, he put out other bands on his label. Thus it began to build into an important indie label and way for people around the country to connect to “Ska.”

Finally, a few of the 80’s bands like Fishbone and No Doubt managed to get major record deals and despite their ambivalence about being called “Ska” bands they were never able to shake the moniker either. The major label connections would pay off in the 90’s.

From my own personal point of view, things changed cleanly for me as the 80’s changed into the 90’s. In 1990, I quit Donkey Show and I guess about 6 months later I was in Hepcat. So I was about to get into a new scene myself.

Part 4 Coming Soon…..

I've been involved in the Los Angeles music scene since at least 1995 going to shows, promoting, spinning records and running labels. Ska and Early Reggae are my passion among other things of course.